Death toll mounts in fighting in southern Philippines

(dpa) - The death toll in fighting between government troops and Muslim separatist rebels in the southern Philippines has risen to at least 28 as the military vowed Tuesday to intensify its offensives against the guerrillas.

Troops have so far flushed out hundreds of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels from two of 15 villages they have illegally occupied in the province of North Cotabato, 930 kilometres south of Manila.

Seven MILF rebels, one soldier and one civilian were killed in the fighting in North Cotabato, the military said.

Soldiers also drove away a separate group of around 300 MILF rebels who seized the town of Tipo-Tipo in Basilan province after an eight-hour gunbattle that killed 15 guerrillas, three civilians and one marine, said Colonel Rustico Guerrero, a marine brigade commander.

"We used airstrikes to drive out the rebels," he said. "Ground troops also battled the guerrillas as they retreated. The rebels burned and strafed houses during their occupation."

General Alexander Yano, armed forces chief of staff, said the military was intensifying its offensives on MILF rebels who refused to vacate occupied villages in North Cotabato province, where the hostilities started last week.

"Unless the MILF renegades will comply to leave peacefully, we shall continue our clearing operations," said Yano. "Amid our intensified operations, we will not compromise the lives of the civilians residing in the affected areas."

Nearly 130,000 people have been displaced by the fighting in North Cotabato, and authorities have warned of a refugee crisis. The government has launched relief operations for the displaced residents, who were staying in more than 40 evacuation centers.

The hostilities flared after the Supreme Court stopped the signing of a Muslim homeland deal between the MILF and the Philippine government, which would have expanded an existing six-province autonomous Muslim region.

Catholic politicians have alleged that the deal violated the constitution and would have ceded sovereignty over the southern Philippines to the Muslim rebels. They have urged the Supreme Court to declare the agreement unconstitutional.

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